Captive Queen by Alison Weir

  “He did repent,” Marshal assured her.

  “I thank God for that,” Eleanor went on. “I am sure that many will remember Henry as a wicked man, but he was never that simple. I loved him with a passion—and came to hate him as fervently, and in our later years I hardly recognized the young man I had so joyfully married. But I could never forget what had been between us, and just occasionally I was afforded a rare glimpse of the old Henry, the one I had loved—and that is why I say to you that he was not truly a wicked man. And when all is said and done, he was, in many respects, an excellent and beneficial ruler.”

  “He was a great king, and I will miss him,” Marshal said simply.

  “And I too, immeasurably,” said Eleanor. “For all the unkindness between us, and our terrible betrayals of each other, I think I still loved him to the last. I can’t explain why, and God knows I had little reason to love him. But there was something about him, something about us, that kept me in thralldom, even when I wanted to free myself. It’s very complicated, and I couldn’t expect anyone to understand it.”

  Clearing the buffet cupboard behind her, Amaria made a face.

  William Marshal, flouting protocol, laid his hand on Eleanor’s. His kind eyes were warm. “I know what you mean,” he said. “I loved him too. I would have died for him.”


  Winchester, 1189

  Later, after the tablecloth had been lifted, Marshal came to the chief purpose of his visit.

  “My lady, we must get down to business. This cannot wait. I have come here, not just to set you free, but to inform you that the King has entrusted you with the power of ruling England as regent. I carry in my saddle pouch instructions to the princes and lords of the realm that your word shall be law in all matters.”

  Her heart was suddenly singing. This was the measure of Richard’s love and trust, she knew. And, please God, she would be equal to it. Not many men, let alone women, were called at the advanced age of sixty-seven to such responsibility and honor. She gave thanks that her years of endurance had taught her a degree of wisdom, despite what she had self-deprecatingly said to William Marshal, and that she was as energetic as she had ever been, and had all her faculties about her. She knew, for she had learned in a hard school, how to rule well, and how to command the respect and obedience—and the love—of her people. Her new authority, for which she thanked God most humbly, would sit easily upon her.

  She was eager to be gone from Winchester, to grasp the reins of government and wield power for the common good. She would make sure that she exerted a sage and benevolent influence over her son the King, who was going to need all the help and support he could get to rule his great empire. His subjects in England hardly knew him, for he was a stranger to them. Well, she would do all in her power to win him their love.

  Her head was full of plans. She would go to Westminster and make every free man in England swear to bear fealty to their new liege lord. Then she would make a progress through the shires, dispensing justice and disposing of all things as she sought fit, cozening the obedience of the nobles. She would transact the business of court and chancery in the King’s name, but using her own seal.

  She was bursting with great plans. She would reform the harsh forest laws, which were so injurious to the poor who tried to scratch a living from the vast swaths of woodland that kings had hitherto regarded purely as their personal hunting grounds. She would legislate for honest weights and measures, and a coinage that would be legal tender anywhere in the kingdom; and she would found hospitals and free prisoners. If any protested against that, she would remind them that she had found prison to be a terrible thing, and that those who were released from it experienced such a delightful refreshment of the spirits that they would make sure never to risk such punishment again. She would make herself exceedingly respected and beloved, to her son’s benefit and that of the whole kingdom.

  With God’s help, she would do all this and more, with wisdom and compassion, and in her own name: Eleanor, by the grace of God, Queen of England.


  Winchester, 1189

  Eleanor thought her heart would burst with joy when she beheld Richard, in all the golden beauty of his manhood, striding toward her across the vast length of the great hall in Winchester Castle. As she stepped forward from the dais, and he caught her in his strong arms and embraced her, the whole court burst into cheers and applause. Then, in all humility, the King knelt for his mother’s blessing, which she gave with gladness.

  With due state and ceremony, Richard ascended to his throne; there were in fact two thrones, side by side, with nothing to distinguish one from the other in precedence or importance. Eleanor saw by this that her son was resolved to treat her as an equal.

  But he had not yet sat down in his high place; he remained standing before her, facing the assembled throng. “My lords and ladies!” he cried in ringing tones. “I wish to express now, before you all, my deepest gratitude to my Lady Mother the Queen for so ably securing this kingdom for me. I cannot sufficiently do her honor, but I would ask you now always to remember how especially dear she is to me, and treat her accordingly.”

  Eleanor’s eyes brimmed as she rose and curtsied before the acclaim of the people. It was awhile before she could see clearly to watch the great ceremonies that were being enacted to welcome the King to his realm.

  “And now, my lady,” Richard said much later, in a lower voice, “let us be private, for I would unburden myself to you.”

  As soon as they were alone in his great chamber, which she’d had done up so gorgeously against his coming, he turned and grasped both her hands, gazing down on her with a troubled countenance.

  “My lady, I am aware that, through rebelling against my father, I have earned the disapproval of good and wise men,” he confessed, his strong, handsome face flushing a little. “Do you too censure me for it?”

  He looked for a moment like a little boy again, seeking his mother’s forgiveness for some silly prank. But this was no childish silliness; he had cruelly made war on his father, against all the laws of God and Nature, and Eleanor had found that difficult to reconcile with her cherished notions of her son, however just his cause had been. She had reminded herself, often, that had not Richard rebelled, John would have stayed faithful, and Henry would have been spared that last, bitter betrayal. But, of course, Henry had been wrong in the first place …

  “I make no judgment until I have heard what you have to say,” she said carefully.

  “Then know this, Mother. I crucify myself every day for what I did to my father—and yet, I know that if I had it all to do again, I would do the same. I had the right of it, you see. But he is gone now, and I cannot mend things between us. Instead, to make up for my past wrongs, I will do all I can to show honor to you as my mother. He would have wanted that. And I hope that my obedience to you will atone for my offense against my father. Will that suffice? Can you forgive me?”

  Eleanor gazed lovingly into his eyes. “Yes, Richard, of course. Our Lord teaches us that to err is human, to forgive divine. Before he left me for the last time, your father and I pledged our forgiveness to each other. I can do no less for you, his son and mine. Yes, I forgive you, with all my heart. And I am sure that if Henry has attained Heaven and is looking down on us, he would forgive you too.”

  She sank into a chair, overcome by the emotion of the moment. “This reminds me of a prophecy of Merlin that I never thought to see fulfilled,” she said. “He foretold that the ‘Eagle of the Broken Covenant’ should rejoice in her third nesting. I puzzled over that for years. But now I know for certain that I am indeed that eagle, and that the broken covenant was indeed my marriage to your father—I suspected that much long ago, but I knew that the latter part of the prophecy had yet to be fulfilled. And now it has. It is you, Richard, my third son, who is my third nesting. It is in you that my heart rejoices. You are the one who will raise my name to great glory, as the seer foretold.”

  The King t
urned to look at her with those arresting, ice-blue eyes.

  “No, my lady,” he said. “If anyone has raised your name to glory, it is yourself.”


  Abbey of Fontevrault, March 1204

  The old lady stirred restlessly in her sleep, and the young nun seated beside the bed looked up anxiously from her book of hours. It was hard to believe that this frail, papery-skinned, aged woman was the fabled Queen Eleanor, wife to two kings and mother to two more: great Eleanor, whose fame—or notoriety, depending on what you believed about her—spanned Christendom and beyond. Great Eleanor, who was now a humble bride of Christ.

  Sister Amice rose, straightened the fine wool coverlets and bleached cotton sheets, rearranged the old lady’s veil on her pillow, and murmured a prayer for her. Eleanor was very old, all of eighty-two, a great age for anyone, and her superb health and vigor had finally yielded to time. She existed as one dead to the world, tended by her sisters in religion in her beloved abbey of Fontevrault, that blessed retreat nestling in its luscious wooded valley in the heartlands of the River Loire.

  Mother Abbess Mathilde de Bohème peered around the door.

  “How is our sister?” she inquired. The young nun fell to her knees.

  “Sleeping, Mother, thanks be to God.”

  “She will not wake again,” Mathilde predicted. “It is a mercy. She will never know that her son, that iniquitous King John, has lost Normandy to the French. We must thank God for this kindness.” Raising her hand in blessing, the abbess glided away to her other manifold duties.

  They think I cannot hear them, Eleanor thought, that I lie here senseless, waiting for eternity. The truth is, I am too weary for human company. I have made my peace with my Maker and am ready to be called to His judgment seat. I am confessed and shriven, ready for my journey. It will not be long now. All that are left to me are my memories. So much to think back on, over the course of a long life fully lived, and not always wisely. It took a long and bitter imprisonment and the advancing years to teach me true wisdom. I learned it the hard way. Oh, but it was sweet to be young and foolish, to love and be loved, to lust …

  She stirred again, her old body, even now, remembering.

  There is much to regret too, she reflected, thinking of the consequences of her follies. I could wish a lot of my deeds undone. I was impetuous, governed by my desires, unheeding of the needs of others. Poor Louis … I led him a merry dance, timid, monkish prince that he was. And Henry … what did we do to each other? How could it have ended the way it did? Then Richard, my golden, lionhearted son, favorite of my brood and love of my life—but dead too soon, cruelly sundered from me by an assassin’s arrow. We will be reunited very shortly, my beloved prince …

  What sounded like a sob came from the figure on the narrow bed, and the young nun looked up. But Eleanor seemed to be lying there peacefully.

  Richard was in God’s hands, as she herself would be soon. It was the memory of Henry that held her. There had been so much bitterness that it was easy to forget how it once was between them, before faithlessness, bloody murder, and rebellion had riven them apart. Yet now, at the last, she wished to remember, to savor, how glorious it had been in the beginning, how it all started; and, for the thousandth time, to make herself understand what had gone wrong. Yet she doubted she ever would.

  Who would have thought, she mused, as a faint smile played upon her sunken lips, that we would have fallen for each other as headily as we did, and in so doing, shocked the world? Even now it was hard to believe. No poet or troubadour even could make sense of it. But then there is no accounting for the ways of the heart—or the responses of two healthy bodies to each other. She had never forgotten that day in Paris, more than half a century before, when she first set eyes on Henry in his magnificent prime …

  Heady memories, but crowded now by sad ones. They were always with her. Not just the tragedy of her marriage, but the pain and unending grief of loss. Eleven children she had borne, and nine she had lost: they came to her often, a sad procession of cherished ghosts: Marie and Alix, whom she never saw again after her divorce from Louis, both gone to their rest these six years now, leaving her full of regrets for having failed them dismally as their mother; little William and baby Philip, sweet, fleeting, poignant memories; Henry the Young King, and Geoffrey, her fine strapping sons, dead before their time, their bitter rivalry vanquished only by death; beloved Matilda, snatched away in childbirth that same summer Henry had died; tragic Joanna, scarred by a violent marriage and the burns that had marred her beauty in a terrible fire and left her too weak to survive a brutal confinement; and her adored Richard, who was to have been the staff of her old age, gone from her too. Having suffered the failure of his great crusade to free Jerusalem from the Turks, and then captivity by the treacherous Emperor—how she had slaved and cajoled to raise that ransom!—he now lay here quiet at Fontevrault, his lion heart stilled, in the choir, at the feet of his father, as Richard in humility and penitence had requested. And soon, if God was merciful, she herself would be laid to her rest near them both.

  After Richard’s death the light had gone out of her life. A shell of her former self, she had girded her loins and done her best to secure John’s inheritance for him, but her heart had not been in it; it was broken and could never be mended. Yet even after that, aged as she was, she had been afforded no rest, but traversed the inhospitable Pyrenees to fetch her granddaughter, Young Eleanor’s child, from Castile, to marry the Dauphin Louis, Philip Augustus’s son. Then there had been the rebellion led by her grandson, Arthur of Brittany, who contested John’s crown, and even had the impertinence to besiege his eighty-year-old granddame in her castle at Mirabeau. It had been John, perfidious John, who showed his mettle and came vengefully to her rescue, riding at breakneck speed to raise the siege, her champion on a white charger. She had almost loved John on that occasion. It was the nearest she had ever come to it.

  But after Mirabeau, John had murdered Arthur. He never confessed to it, and it was not the kind of thing people spoke of other than covertly, but she had known. There were awful tales being whispered. Some said the King had ordered the boy’s gaoler to have him blinded and castrated; others that John himself killed Arthur and had his weighted body thrown into the Seine. Eleanor had pleaded with her son for her grandson’s life, but John was not able to meet her eyes. That was when she knew. Again, it seemed that the Angevin family was cursed, and that its scions, those hapless descendants of the witch Melusine, must forever be destroying one another. Was there to be no end to it?

  And now they were saying that John had lost Normandy, that proud heritage of the Conqueror, that jewel in the Angevin crown. It would fall, the empire, she knew it; if Philip’s successors were as ambitious and tenacious as he, they would claw it away, inch by inch. It might take hundreds of years, but the great empire that she and Henry had built would crumble in the end, and its legacy would no doubt endure to trouble Christendom for centuries more. That much we achieved! she thought grimly, thanking God that Henry and Richard were not here to see this day. Yes, Henry, we built a great empire, she reflected, but it may well leave a bloody legacy. Had her life been worthwhile? Not in human terms, she felt. When all her passion had been spent and her hopes dashed in the dust, what was left to show that she had made the best use of her time on Earth? The great dynastic marriage that she schemed and sinned to make had brought neither happiness nor peace, even if it had invested her and Henry with a fleeting greatness. Instead, they were leaving a bitter heritage to those who came after them. Already, the reckoning was due.

  But Normandy, and the problems of the empire, could not concern her now. God had other priorities. True greatness lay in living in harmony with Him, and in living wisely and exercising power with humility. Often, she knew, she had signally failed, but in the main she had done her very best, even if her motives had not been the purest. You could not say much more for anyone than that. The book of her life was almost written, and nothing
could now be changed. She was done with earthly things, had put them firmly behind her. John must go to Hell in his own way …

  By the time of Arthur’s disappearance, she’d had enough. She was old and weary, and her task was done. All she sought was the peace and tranquillity of the cloister, and a quiet mind. She had benefited from the former, but doubted she would ever achieve the latter. Had it not been said, by someone very wise—she forgot whom; she was very forgetful these days—that the blood of the wicked would not thrive? Had she and Henry been so very wicked? She feared to answer that question, with death and Divine Judgment fast approaching. And yet—whatever she had done wrong, she’d done her best to atone for it and seek forgiveness. In the final accounting, God Himself would be all-merciful. Maybe she should do as the abbess said and put her trust in Him, and wait for death with serenity, embracing it rather than fearing it.

  So here she was, shrouded among the shrouded women. She shifted a little in her narrow bed, causing the young nun to look up from her book. Still dead to the world, the girl thought. She did not know that in the old lady before her, a subtle change was taking place; but Eleanor was herself suddenly, joyously aware that a golden door had burst open, that it opened to receive her and that she was drifting toward the brilliant light streaming from it, dazzling her with its splendor. She had one last, lucid thought: that we none of us know exactly what lies beyond the door to eternity, but if Our Lord is kind, our loved ones will be waiting there for us, in His tender care, and we will be in a Paradise far beyond our earthly imaginings.

  If she’d had a voice, she would have cried out in rapture, for, suspended in the light, she saw again, as she had seen in a dream all those years before, a circlet of blazing gold that shone with incomparable brightness, a crown with no beginning and no end, so gloriously pure and resplendent with its assurance of everlasting joy. And in that wonderful moment, as the candle beside her bed flickered gently and went out, and the young nun called in alarm for the abbess, Eleanor felt her soul suddenly take wings and fly, south to Poitiers, Bordeaux, Aquitaine.…

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